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Unmasking the Model Minority Myth

Pat Albano started his college career at San Diego State University with high hopes. But by the end of his first year, he had “partied” out of school, having earned a grade point average of just .93. “I was partying too much. I wasn’t on track,” says Albano, a San Franciscan born to Filipino immigrants.

He got back on track when he enrolled at City College of San Francisco upon moving home. There he discovered the Asian Pacific American Student Success (APASS) program, the first retention program in California targeting the academic needs of Asian and Pacific Islander college students.

Laurene McClain, chair of the Asian studies department at CCSF, started the program in 2004 after she discovered that 40 percent of students on academic probation were of Asian ancestry.

“That prompted me to organize this work group, find out their needs and concerns, and how we can help,” McClain says.

She interviewed a focus group of Burmese, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Indonesian, Pacific Islander and Vietnamese students and then went forward with obtaining funding and support from the district.

Asians, who make up 41 percent of the students at CCSF, make up 99 percent of the students getting help from APASS because they’re on academic probation or need assistance in various subjects. APASS, which is open to all students in need, provides mentorship, counseling, transfer information and tutoring for students.

Long viewed as the “model minority,” Asian students’ academic needs have been put on the back burner, says Dr. Minh-Hoa Ta, program director.

The “model minority” myth helped to mask the underperformance of some Asian groups that are not as academically, socially and economically well off as thought. That’s why the University of California last month decided to collect and analyze student enrollment and graduation data of specific Asian subgroups, including Hmong and Filipino.

Andrew Hom, a volunteer at APASS, says the center’s mission has proven to be successful.

“They have already outgrown the space, and it is because a lot of people are coming in; these people are doing something right,” he says.

Today, the center, which operates on an annual budget of $500,000, has 25 staff members and volunteers servicing 1,800 students each year on CCSF’s 28,000-student main campus.

Hom, now a 39-year-old senior at San Francisco State University majoring in Asian American studies, can attest to the center’s work. He bounced around a lot, from job to job, not really knowing where he was going, but upon accessing APASS as a CCSF student, he felt that he was part of a community and became more centered and grounded.

“It allowed me to have a connection to the college. I think most students don’t have a sense of personal investment beyond the required classes,” Hom says. “I found myself staying here, and a small community has developed.”

APASS is a particular draw for students who are struggling with the English language.

“What I like about APASS is that they have a different way of teaching English,” says McClain. “Some of the students felt very frustrated going into the tutoring service on campus … they pretty much had to guess what was wrong with their writing.”

APASS has bilingual counselors and tutors who are able to help ESL students directly with everything from vocabulary building to essay writing. The center also helps Asian immigrant students, who not only have language barriers to overcome, but also have to rewire their way of thinking in the classroom.

Ta says that in Asian countries, instructors’ method of teaching is more technical, with an emphasis on memorization rather than on critical thinking.

“For example, many instructors in this country will challenge their students, ‘You don’t have to like the story, but tell me why you don’t like the story,’” Ta says. “This kind of question would never be asked in many Asian countries.”

Albano, now a kinesiology major at San Francisco State, has a current cumulative GPA of 3.0, which he largely attributes to the study skills, time management and counselors’ guidance he received at APASS.

“The point is, it is not so much that Asians who go to college are there with their 4.0 sitting high and mighty,” he says. “No, we all need help.”

–Molly Nance

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